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Traveling with Bookstores

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Looking over my bookshelves is like scanning a scrapbook of my trips. When I travel I always visit the local independent bookstore and collect a recommendation from an employee. While I’ve shopped for years in bookstores, my first experience in asking for guidance was at the Corner Bookstore on Madison Avenue in New York. I had walked numerous blocks with my children, they were complaining, I was cranky, and my feet hurt. I stumbled across the store and fell in, hoping for respite. 

The place was small but bright with oak stained book tables lining the front half of the store, and similar shelving in the back half and along the walls. I collapsed in the one chair by the front window and sent my kids to the children’s section. I scanned the stacks of books and felt overwhelmed; I was too beat to look. In desperation, I asked an elegant woman who was briskly arranging the surrounding books if she had any books she loved. 

She wondered what type of reading I enjoyed. I paused; normally I’m not a beach reader. I love a challenging book. But on that day a book without pictures would have been a stretch. I told her my usual choice but that I felt defeated by everything. She brought over No Angel by Penny Vincenzi, a family saga of war, love, affairs, and heartbreak; within the first thirty pages I became lost in another world, on vacation from life. The second book was Old Filth by Jane Gardam, a literary book with a unique character personifying the bygone British Empire. Months later, in a California museum I saw a woman carrying Old Filth, the only time I’ve seen it, and I wanted to stop her and talk to her about it, but then realized that the book feels especially communal to me only because of my personal experience at the Corner Bookstore.

After flying home from New York and unpacking my books, I decided that finding independent bookstores wherever I travel and buying a recommendation would be my new collection. The beauty of these stores is that the employees read a lot, are experts in certain genres, and are opinionated about books. The stores often reflect their community, what might be popular in one place frequently is different from what is selling in my hometown. Walking into a store as a tourist, exploring the stock and then leaving after a substantive conversation with a local gives me a sense of connection to the area, much more intimate than chatting up the waitress at the local diner.

Finding the bookstores is relatively easy; I search the web for “independent bookstore and the city and state.” City websites include lists of bookstores. Fodor’s Web site usually cites several bookstores; simply search a city, click on shopping and scroll through. Book Sense, a marketing group for independent bookstores, offers a store locater function on its website. Readers share great bookstores and that is how I first heard about Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. It’s mentioned frequently, and someday I’ll be in Portland for more than a layover and can visit. Of course, the best finds I usually discover by accident; I need a bumper stick on my car that says, “I stop for all independent bookstores.”

On occasion, I’ve had to be a bit pushy with the clerk, either because everything she suggests is common nationwide—who needs to hear that a recent Oprah pick is popular—or she’s so surprised to be asked she turns shy. In these situations, I’ll ask the clerk what she has read recently that she liked. This is how in Grass Valley, California I found The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, a piercing book about the destruction of Kabul personified by two couples living under the Taliban. With all the hype over Hosseni’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, this jewel was never mentioned as a companion read, but with a little curiosity and probing, I was fortunate to find it. 

During a recent trip to Washington, DC, I stopped by Kramersbooks in Dupont Circle and learned that the staff was passing around Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. The book describes the author as an Australian escaped convict who lived as a fugitive in Bombay where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, then worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner and a street solider for a part of the Bombay mafia. After ten years he was recaptured, finished his prison sentence, then upon his release started a successful multimedia company. Shantaram is a fictionalized tale of Robert’s life. I read the back and asked the employees “Are you kidding me? Is this guy for real?” They laughed and explained that while the book isn’t beautifully written, it is a great romp. It’s on top of my vacation reading list.

Because I read a lot, occasionally the clerks and I talk about four or five books before we hit on one that I haven’t read, and by then out of desperation, I take the first book that is new to me. This happened in The Book Barn in Bend, Oregon, a small store lined with pale shelves with ten additional free-standing bookshelves. It has several excellent selections in various genres and a wire basket of books by the door advertised “for free.” It took a bit of prompting to move the owner away from the front desk, but once she was out, she darted everywhere, pointing out recommendations. Unfortunately our taste were similar so everything she liked, I already had read. That made for a terrific conversation, and I spent an enjoyable half hour talking about books with her; but this is in part a community experience and in part a quest. 

Finally, she found The Brothers K by David James Duncan, a New York Times Notable book from 1992. As a Dostoevsky fan, I was immediately attracted. From this experience I added a new question to my repertoire: “Is there an older book that you loved.” These finds feel extra special. To the extent people talk about books, they usually talk about classics or current fiction, but a vast middle ground full of delights exists, one that can be discovered by word of mouth.

Several stores highlight books by placing them on a special table or by hanging cards from the shelf where the book is located. Years ago I found a book in Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington about living in suburbia; the recommendation card described the tedium of living in tract housing as the constant evenly paced whoosh of a Rainbird sprinkler. The description struck me, so I bought the book, which described the brain-numbing monotony of suburban life. Whenever I drive through tract housing I feel that oppression. 

If a bookstore offers recommendations throughout the store, I skip talking to the clerk. Olsson’s in Washington, DC devotes floor-to-ceiling shelves throughout the store to Staff Picks, plus staff reviews are spread throughout the remaining shelves. I found the name of the employee who recommended Atonement by Ian McKwen, one of my favorite books, then wandered around reading that employee’s other descriptions and came away with several intriguing selections. My favorite part of a ski trip to Mammoth is the stop at the Spellbinders bookstore in Bishop, California. It has a large bookshelf for books loved by the staff, though sometimes turnover on those shelves is slow. I bought William Boyd’s Any Human Heart several years ago; now it is falling apart from use, but the next winter when I returned to Spellbinders, it was still sitting on the recommendation bookshelf.

In the spring of 2007, I flew to Princeton, New Jersey and, shockingly, found only one bookstore in a basement with so few books I could count them and a bored clerk. When I asked if he had any books to recommend, he curtly said “no” and turned away. I did buy my daughter a Princeton sweatshirt, which she was wearing several months later while eating lunch in a remote village in Peru. A woman approached us and said she had just moved to Princeton and asked if we lived there. I explained that we had visited, and we immediately launched into a conversation about my amazement at the absence of bookstores. That was one of her disappointments in moving, she said. Her previous town had a wonderful bookstore, but there was nothing in Princeton.

But the Princeton trip wasn’t a total book failure. I visited the college bookstore, and while every end cap had a sign for “staff recommendations,” most were empty, and the selection was sparse. I talked with the lone employee who, with a shrug, pointed out the new book by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, called The Idea That Is America. The book discusses whether or not our founding principles match our actions: it is an inoffensive, non-ideological, thoughtful book. A few months later I invited several people, both conservatives and liberals, to meet to discuss this book, and it provided a foundation for reasoned discussion. We should require all our representatives to read it and talk to each other.

The Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California, a small New England style sea village on the coast of Northern California, is my all time favorite bookstore. I visited it almost twenty years ago when it was a small shop on a side street—I thought of the original Gallery Bookshop while reading about Harry Potter’s room under the stairs. I vacationed there again eight years ago, and saw the store had expanded to a space four times larger with windows across the front overlooking a full view of the cliffs and the Pacific. The space is filled with light, warmth, and hundreds of books. I spent an afternoon meandering among aisles of tall, dark bookcases while my husband sat in the car with the napping kids, listening to the radio. I was gone so long he completely drained the car battery, and we had to call Triple A for a jump. I bought Kalimantaan by C.S. Godshalk there that afternoon, and seeing it on my bookshelf makes me smile as I recall that magical place.

I daydream about owning that bookstore. During my worst days, I’ve called my husband and asked him to contact a broker to buy the store when life is too much; it is my escape dream. During that visit, our innkeeper told us that it takes a PhD just to get a job there. I only have a JD, and I’m sure the last thing Mendocino needs is another lawyer, so I’ll have to console myself with the knowledge that the Gallery Bookshop is only a short plane flight and a lovely drive along the coast away.


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